Boy, maybe it's just me, but January 2012 is turning out to be a transitional doorway for a substantial number of those who have spent an enormous portion of their time here contributing mightily to the growth and expansion of our human engagement and civilization in diverse ways.
Sure, they were septuagenarians, octogenarians and even nonagenarians, but they were still beatin' and breathin', you know, and the Muse was still with them, but this time as an usher out. Maybe the truism says the good ones will go in threes, but not this time--these are treys cubed. Etta (James), Johnny (Otis), Dudley (Thompson), Joe (Paterno), Jimmy (Castor), Stewart (Fulbright), and all were the headliners, the quiet storm chasers, the movers and shakers, and the neighborhood activists, and they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Johnny Otis, the White Greek American who was raised Black and who helped a great number of Black entertainers, slipped away last week. Otis, who was a pioneer of positive race-consciousness in the music industry and who literally fought for equality on the bandstand, is famous for "Harlem Nocturne," a brilliant saxophone turn, and "Willie and the Hand Jive," which made many people think he was actually a high-yellow Black man passing for White. These were among many other great sounds he created. His discography is huge.
Otis is the one who "discovered" a 15-year-old with a tremendous voice--Jamesetta Hawkins--who became for us, the raunchy, ribald, sultry and dignified Etta James. The scene in the Chess Records movie in which Beyonce, as Etta James, sings for Leonard Chess from the bathroom, actually happened, but it was Johnny Otis as the audience, not Chess.
James is a true music legend far beyond the "At Last" song always featured when her name is mentioned. She answered Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," song in the 1960s twice, one with the almost equally famous, "Roll With Me Henry."
That Ballard song is one of the most significant in rock 'n' roll history, but that's another column. James was a singer, which means she defied classification and typecasting to just rhythm and blues, cabaret, speakeasy, Carnegie Hall, country and Western, etc.
Like Ray Charles, she had a voice for virtually all musical genres and she sang for three different generations of Black folk. She will be very, very well remembered.
Dudley Thompson was a Jamaican legend who worked with Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta (he was Kenyatta's lawyer, when the latter was accused by the British of being a Mau Mau), George Padmore and others of such ilk. He was the role model of what a true Pan Africanist really is and should be. He was diligently working on a project to organize the African Diaspora into a collective whole which could speak with one unified voice when he passed away one day after his 95th birthday.
I learned a lifelong mantra from my busy beaver mother, a professional educator most of her adult life. Many of our transitioning greats this January seem to have inculcated the same mantra.